Nicole Jackson is a true learner and lover of nature. She is always looking for opportunities to learn something new and help others see the brilliance and lessons of the natural world around them. Nicole has a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Education and Interpretation (2011) from The Ohio State University. She is a Natural Leader of the Children & Nature Network, a member of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Next Generation Advisory Council, was co-organizer of Black Birders Week and founder of Black in National Parks Week.
What is your first memory of being thrilled by something in nature?
I had a vivid imagination when I was a kid. I remember playing around outside and found a piece of plastic that looked like a seed and so I planted it in the dirt. Not realizing how time and seed growth worked at the time, I came back out the next day to see if it had sprouted. Sadly it did not, but from that point I became more interested in plants and gardening.
What set you on the course toward your profession?
I had an interest in a lot of different things growing up. In elementary school, I loved going to the library to read about different animals and habitats. I also loved watching the show Nature on PBS. I learned so much about ecosystems and wildlife. When I began as a freshman at The Ohio State University, my career path was veterinary medicine, but I eventually found it to be too competitive and wanted to try something new. At the time my advisor suggested I do an internship focused on avian ecology with a few of her graduate students. I loved it and from there found my passion for wanting to find more ways to connect more people to nature. I learned about the profession of Environmental Education. I fell in love with this career path because it was interdisciplinary and I could be more creative with program ideas.
What new projects are coming up that you’re excited about?
I’m still making connections from Black Birders Week and Black in National Parks Week so I’m hoping to continue doing talks about those events. Anything where I can showcase other nature enthusiasts work in the community is exciting for me. I love networking and connecting with people to create more and new opportunities to better engage with nature. Be sure to stay tuned for future project announcements!
How would you encourage young people to become birders?
I would encourage them to remain curious, seek a mentor and join a local birding group. When I’m interested in something, I ask questions or seek more resources to get more information on the topic. I didn’t have anyone to show me cool things in nature or teach me how to identify birds until I was in my 20s. Growing up, I got most of my information about birds from watching television. Now everything is online or experienced through social media, but that’s not always a bad thing. There are tons of groups online now to meet other birders. Finding a mentor is key as well because they can help you foster your curiosity and passion for birding.
How did you decide you wanted to educate people about nature?
Nature was an escape for me growing up in inner- city Cleveland. I was exposed to poverty, violence, homelessness, and drug use in my community. Finding any piece of green space, no matter how small or big helped me find peace and solace. I went to the library a lot after school and read many books about wild and faraway places. I wanted to know more and share my love and benefits of connecting to nature with others as I got older. I didn’t want to keep it to myself because what it did for me could change someone else’s life in a positive way too.
What accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
I am most proud of embracing my introverted personality. As a kid, I always felt like I was awkward and that something was wrong with me because I was quiet and reserved around people. As I learned more about nature, it showed me that I had sort of a gift. Being an introvert started to feel more like a super-power. I was more attentive, empathetic, and creative in my thinking.
Another accomplishment I am proud of was flying in a plane to another state. I have never traveled anywhere by plane and used to be terrified to fly. An opportunity came along for me to attend a youth leadership retreat and I almost talked myself out of it because I let the fear take over. I eventually told myself that if I did not do it, I would never know or would always wonder what opportunities l missed to connect with others or places I’ve only read about. I am glad I took that leap. I was able to meet other wonderful people my age doing wonderful work in their communities.
What were your key learnings from Black Birders Week?
Some things I learned from Black Birders Week included realizing that I wasn’t the only Black person that enjoyed birding and that there’s still work that needs to be done to better engage and learn about what people of color are passionate about. There are so many opportunities to listen to what we feel we need to better engage with nature.
What do you think nature/environmental organizations can do to engage more people of color in their organizational missions and activities?
Learn more about their interests and what they are passionate about doing in their communities as it relates to the environment. I also think representation matters. If people of color see more people that look like them in various environmental careers, they are more likely to engage with the natural world around them.
What’s the oddest thing you’ve encountered during your career?
Back in 2012, I used to work as an adventure naturalist for a residential 4-H camp. One day we had a huge rainstorm and I remember finding a Brown Snake and decided to put it in one of our tanks in the nature center for the kids to check out the next day. I remember one of the campers asking why there were worms in the tank. Looking confused by the question, I went over to the tank and saw that the adult was gone and there were a bunch of baby snakes squirming around! I was just as surprised as the campers because I didn’t realize I caught a pregnant female Brown Snake. It turned into a teachable moment and we talked about why this may have happened and why snakes need to survive.
What is your dream trip and why?
I’ve always wanted to visit South America for a bird tour. I would love to take a trip to Panama to witness a Harpy Eagle in the wild. They are fascinating birds of prey and I would just like to see their huge talons and fierce stare.
Thank you, Nicole, for taking time to speak with us.